Psychoanalytic research methods: Description & Overview

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This article is an overview/summary of the primary research methods used by the classical theorists in the psychoanalytical school of thought.

Broad methods have an as traditionally used by Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Erik Erikson.

There are 2 sections in this post. The first one is about 13 broad research methods used by these 3 theorists. The second one is about the modern research methods used to further research in psychoanalysis.

I’ve described the 2 sections with respect to theorists and not methods because some of them used the same method but with a radically different approach. For example, Freud and Jung, both used dream analysis; but Freud interpreted them with his free association technique and Jung interpreted them with a basis of archetypes and interconnected dreams (details below).

Note: This article is a copy of my first blog-post which was also a class assignment during my undergrad. Please pardon the crudeness, it’s copied without edits to mark the beginning of my blogging career.

A detailed overview of the research methodology used in psychoanalysis

Let us begin with a small introduction to the 3 theorists.

Please note that this article is an ‘as is’ article. Call this a history lesson in psychology.

The famous Psychoanalysts

1. Sigmund Freud: 

Freud's research methodology

Born in 1856 to a Jewish family, Freud chose the path of science and got into medical school. He based his decision on the fact that the future of academic advancement would be poor looking at the Nazi control. He earned respect as a medical investigator after this choice he made and specialized in neurology. His initial work was based on the treatment of Hysteria and involved hypnosis along with a talking-out which was in vogue owing to a Viennese Physician named Joseph Breuer who in fact trained Freud in it. He later went solo and laid the foundation of the Freudian school of thought. His greatest contribution to the field of personality is the importance of the unconscious with respect to the intra-psychic interaction of Id, Ego and the Super Ego. He, later on, developed the psycho-sexual stages. We will not get into that discussion as the purpose of this essay is to evaluate the research methods.

2. Carl Jung: 

Carl Jung's research methodology

Carl Jung, born in Switzerland in 1875, was erudite. He earned the title of a psychiatrist with knowledge from a myriad of other disciplines including mythology, religion, alchemy, neurology, evolution, astrology, archaeology, etc. He began as a Padawan to Freud during their encounter with each other in the University of Clark, Massachusetts in 1909. For Freud, Jung was the worthy heir of the throne of Psychoanalysis, which is quite true to an extent but their approach took major turns, making them rivals, something like two Kings, two Kingdoms but one throne. Jung’s main contribution was partly influenced by Freud and Charles Darwin.

Although, his work is an astounding body of theories, constructs, and mechanisms uniquely created by him. He focused on inherited thoughts and memories which formed the collective unconscious which guided the personality to a high degree. He gave us the construct of archetypes which is a central part of his study. He gave us the Attitudes and the Functions which were potentials of every person’s cognition and not just typological in nature.

3. Erik Erikson: 

Erik Erikson's research methodology

Erik Erikson was a contemporary in psychoanalytic theory. Born in 1902 who also studied at the University of Vienna and trained in psychoanalysis put a new developmental psychology as a dimension in his body of work. His major contribution falls in the psychoanalytic tradition because of his theory which gave 8 different stages in the development of a human. Each stage represented a conflict. His propositions emerged from the belief that every human has instinctive equipment which is highly malleable.

The research methods used in psychoanalysis

I’ve listed the research methods based on theorists.

SIGMUND FREUD’s Research Methodology

1. Single Case studies:

Freud used this method extensively in his study. Although the majority of his case studies are lost in time, 6 of his studies have been published and well reviewed. Freud was a scientist by nature, though critics won’t concur. His way of science was of Inductive reasoning and internal consistencies as opposed to a hypothesis and deductive implications. For example, he would look for consistencies throughout his interactions with a patient and establish them if they made sense according to his theory over time; like his case study of little Hans (1909). Most of his cases had a period of Free association and dream analysis (we will look at these 2 shortly). His case study method was long and extremely detailed which was the source of his information. The problem with this is only that of external validation and the primary attribution bias. It is possible that some of the content might be falsely believed to be true which is exemplified in his study of ‘The Wolf man’ (1918) where neurotic symptoms may have led to delusional beliefs and false accounting of an experience. Although this was never externally validated by other people who could provide knowledge, Freud was satisfied by the internal consistency method in accord with dream interpretation.

2. Free association & Dream analysis:

These 2 methods were almost exclusively paired in his clinical setting. By free association, Freud meant, speaking anything and everything that comes to one’s mind no matter how ridiculous the patient might judge it to be. He posited that all free association content will eventually exhibit a pattern, much like the statement of the Chaos theory (Poincare, 1890). These free associations will eventually be paired with his method of dream analysis where, conflicts, sexual tensions, repressions, etc. will symbolize leading to the symptoms. Hence his method here would give him a gateway to the intra-psychic tension and would be used to ‘cure’ the patient. This combination has excellent internal validity and the need for external validity is deemed unnecessary as there is access to the unconscious processes. For most of his patients, this worked. Which itself is validity! The manifestation of dreams was theorised to be originating in the patient’s childhood, hence confirming with a conscious recollection is impossible and leads to a possibility that some mechanisms were ‘sham’ and misinterpreted through the experimenter bias. Although the efficacy of this method is supported by the sheer number of clinical sessions Freud has completed.

3. Cathartic method:

As mentioned earlier, Freud spent his initial time with Joseph Breuer who advocated this method. This method involved hypnosis to recollect the original incident which was usually repressed leading to the symptoms. In his work with Anna O, he found that by tracing her associations in an autohypnotic state, he could not only find an original repressed incident but could actually cure her of her symptoms. When she related an event to a symptom while in a hypnotic state, her symptom would become terribly powerful and dramatic, but would then be purged, never to trouble her again (Stevenson, 1996).

This method was never popular is psychoanalysis in the future as Freud opted for a conscious method of psychoanalysis. Modern studies do show a significant amount of evidence which proved the logic of catharsis; primarily Theta wave states linked to memory recollection and object representation (Buzsaki, 2005).


As evidently shown in movies, this method is that of the classical-clinical setting for Freud. He requested his patients to lie down on a comfortable couch in a manner that made sure that Freud was not seen (a control for killing inhibitions) directly. In this setting, he first used hypnosis during his hysteria study days and later on dream analysis and free association. He also used this setting for standard conversations and observing the patient. There is logic in this method which adds to his overall methodology.

5. Self analysis:

Freud relied on his own experiences for intuition and retrospective observation. He began self analysing his dreams in 1897 (Jones, 1953). To his satisfaction, he confirmed his psychosexual stages in his self-analysis. He found the existence of the conflicts in himself. It is unknown how he resolved his deepest conflicts but they have generated insight into his therapy strategies. Critics state that this type of evidence was too metaphysical and pseudoscientific (Crew, 1996).

*It must be noted that there aren’t many empirical data collected in the Freudian school of thought. Although all the data was recorded by Freud, there was no empirical analysis as such. But, there are modern studies which are experimental in nature which validate certain postulates. Section 2 has one such study discussed.

We will now move towards Jungian research methods

CARL JUNG’s Research Methodology

6. Dream analysis:

For Jung, Dream analysis was a whole different process. For that, one must be familiar with the archetypes, mainly the anima, animus and the shadow. His interpretation of dreams was based on 3 primary methods: One, The method of Amplification which was to understand the elements which had rich symbolic value. Unlike Free association, here the dreamer is supposed to give multiple associations to the element and not linearly progress from the element. Consider it as 2 opposite directions. The second method is that of a series of dreams, here the archetypal significance slowly unfolds in a series of interconnected dreams which reveal multiple events or instances of significance. This is one of the strongest therapeutic methods, Jung used. Lastly, the method of Active imagination, where the dreamer describes the changes in a mental imagery (often dreamt) after concentration. These changes may be presented in an art form. In Jung’s method of dream analysis, a wider interpretation is possible revealing conflicts, complexes, archetypes, insights, etc. as opposed to Freud which revealed primarily defenses, conflicts, and sexual tensions. It is evident that Jung had a more comprehensive approach. For some critics, this was a form of mysticism and absolutely unscientific in theory (Grover, 1950).

7. Case studies:

Jung published a few case studies but they were in no way comparable to the type of case histories published by Freud. He accounted for a few fantasies and analysed them but were not characteristic in nature like Freud’s Dora & Hysteria. Jung emphasized more on the cultural, mythological and religious development of archetypes. It is seen that Jung (who may seem like a science fiction author but isn’t) had radical methods of obtaining material for his research. Case studies were not the centre.

8. Comparative studies:

Jung studied astrology, religion and many other mythologies. It did not mean that he advocated their inferences. He looked at it as a Tour de force. His main discovery was the archetype of ‘Mandala’ which stands for unity and is represented by the alchemical transmutation circle. It makes perfect sense that cultural traditions which were predominant in society for centuries would leave strong archetypes. These postulates make sense in 2 other modern concepts: 1- which is adaptive memory and 2- genetic memory. Jung stated that throughout all dreams from a series, there is symbolic consistency with present-day problems in the patient’s life. He observed archetypal elements in various art forms which unconsciously oozed out according to the artist’s personality. This method may have cemented everything Jung theorized.

9.Experimental study of complexes: 

This was Jung’s most scientific method (at least in the traditional sense). Till date, his contribution of the word association method along with physiological measurements. In the word association method, a person is supposed to speak out the first word that comes to his/her mind after being presented with a standard set of words one by one. A psychogalvanometer is used to measure the skin’s electrical resistance. A stopwatch is used to measure the response time of the words and changes in breathing is measured by a pneumograph. Every change in reading and fluctuations during a word response indicated and underlying complex. This method was solid. Without loopholes and with perfect logical consistency. Later there were inquiry periods with the patient which (like a projective test) showered more conscious information on a complex.

*Jung had empirical data for his research but a large portion of his theorizing was through intuition. You must have realized that the inception of this school of thought would have taken more than just lab experiments.

Now, let’s move toward the contemporary psychoanalyst: Erik Erikson

ERIC ERIKSON’s Research Methodology

10. Case Histories:

Erikson did not publish too many case histories. He did, a few, but they focused on growth, during the developmental phases. He focused on children as well, which was neglected by other psychoanalysts ( an exception being Anna Freud, D/O Sigmund Freud). He made these histories as polished style made them literary and scientific accounts.

11. Psychohistories:

Psychohistories are the study of individual and collective life with the combined methods of psychoanalysis and history (Erikson, 1974). He had interest in Psychoanalyzing famous people so he analysed autobiographies like Young man Luther and Gandhi’s Truth. He found rich information into the concept of personality from this work. He had strict guidelines for psychohistories. The method was scientific and gave results in a developmental form in accord with his stage theories. A major problem with these is that there is very little evidence that the autobiographies are exactly as the life experiences. Who is to say that the autobiographies aren’t coloured by defence mechanisms, biases, confabulation, etc.?

12. Anthropological studies: 

Erikson studied primitive races and their children in comparison with his usual subjects. There were consistencies over different races and tribes. This resembles the processes of norm-setting in psychometrics. He made correlations between childhood training and adult traits. These gain significance today and are supported today by large population mixing in society.

13. Play Situations: 

In masked experimental studies, Erikson tested 150 male and 150 female children to play with toys and obtained gender specific playing orientation. His observations are not supported by any other future studies (Caplan, 1979; Cramer & Hogan 1975). In spite of that, a play situation method is often used by developmental psychologists to study children and use therapy.

Section 2 begins….. Now we will consider other miscellaneous & newer methods used for research.

Modern Research Methods Used in Psychoanalysis

1. Experimental studies:

In some studies to validate Psychoanalytic therapy, the experimental research methodology has been applied. For example, in one study, Lloyd Silverman et. al. (1966, 1976, 1982, 1983) developed a research paradigm (Subliminal psychodynamic activation) where subliminal emotional exposure intrudes the unconscious self. That is, through subliminal presentations using a tachistoscope. Perhaps this was the first thoroughly innovative experiment conducted to support psychoanalysis. To all critic’s surprise, their results were in favour of the Freudian school of thought. These sort of experiments are much needed for the literature to expand.

2. Empirical analysis of testing:

Based on Jung’s theory of personality the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) has been developed and it yields 16 personality characteristics. They are moderately consistent with Jung’s theory as well as other psychometric tests like Eyesenck’s personality questionnaire. This has been the most influential tool developed over psychoanalysis in personality typology. However, the MBTI is NOT a valid assessment tool, according to modern research.

A more appropriate test of personality is the Word association test which is still used in clinics. Other projective techniques like the Rorschach or Thematic apperception test have been sufficiently used in Therapy. These tests can quantify constructs and thus be considered as empirical research on psychoanalysis.

3. Cluster analysis:

As in the case of Jung’s personality types, potentials are described rather than dimensions or typologies. Helson (1973) did some structure analysis of personality and it concluded with a fourfold classification which was similar to Jung’s Functions. Newer research can focus on reframing psychoanalytical concepts based on their utility and predictive power – Is an old concept explaining something better than a new concept? If yes, what aspects are doing a better job?

4. Hypnosis and neuroimaging;

Joseph Breuer had much faith in hypnosis and Freud discontinued the method. Neurological changes that take place during a session or recollection of violent repressed memories can ground psychodynamic constructs in neurobiological models of mental health. More research can give a neurological basis to Psychoanalysis!

To conclude, we have discussed 3 researchers here (Freud, Jung, and Erikson) and the characteristic research methods used by them. Some of them have been scientific in nature and most of them do not meet basic scientific criteria.

Today many of the findings and methods used seem odd, obvious or extraordinary. In my opinion, like a work of art, we must remember that they all came from a different era and laid the foundation for us. They opened the door for sophisticated research and helped modern research any many ways.

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